The following column by Jim LeMonds appeared in the December 2009 Cowlitz Historical Quarterly.
This issue of the Quarterly features Steve Anderson’s story “By Any Other Name: E’La-cac-ca, Prince of the Cowlitz.”
E’La-cac-ca was present in 1855 when Isaac Stevens attempted to negotiate a treaty that would require the Cowlitz Indians to forfeit their traditional homelands along the present-day I-5 corridor and move to the Quinault reservation on the Pacific Coast.
Tribal leaders refused to sign. The Yakima Indian War ensued. In 1856, the Cowlitz warriors – E’La-cac-ca among them – laid down their weapons and gave up their fight, their land, and their way of life. The Cowlitz nation essentially dissolved.
No treaty was ever ratified. The U.S. government simply confiscated the Cowlitz tribe’s territory. In 1973, the Indian Claims Commission found that the government had deprived the tribe “ . . . of its aboriginal Indian title as of March 20, 1863, without payment of any compensation.”
The commission determined that 1.79 million acres had been taken unjustly. The settlement offered by the government amounted to a whopping 90 cents per acre.
But the 3,000+ remaining members of the Cowlitz tribe were unable to claim that money because the U.S. government still did not formally “recognize” the tribe’s existence.
Radiocarbon testing of artifacts discovered near an ancient village at Cowlitz Falls (two miles east of the confluence of the Cowlitz and Cispus rivers) indicates that the Cowlitz tribe has inhabited the area for at least 4,000 years. Every historical record since the first white man made an appearance in the Northwest substantiates the fact that the tribe occupied the Cowlitz River Valley. But it wasn’t until February 18, 2000, that the U.S. government got around to acknowledging that the Cowlitz tribe actually existed.
Today, the tribe maintains an office and health clinic in Longview and is engaged in a contentious battle to build a casino near LaCenter. Of the 29 federally recognized tribes in Washington, only the Samish (Skagit County) and the Cowlitz do not have reservations.
Only 150 years have passed since E’La-cac-ca’s day – just two lifetimes laid end to end – but for the Cowlitz people, the past must seem as distant as the stars.